'Eye candy' and 'booth girls' at HIMSS: For women in tech, conferences can add insult to injury

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In just the past decade, there has been explosive growth in the digitization of the world. People can deposit checks with the snap of a photo on a smartphone. You can hail a private car with a couple of touches on a number of ride service apps. It seems like every day, a new technological advancement comes along and alters the course of modern life.

But technology's progress stands in stark contrast to its culture. The tech industry is creating the future, but the tech culture remains years behind, especially when it comes to gender relations.

A new report called "Elephant in the Valley" sheds personal light on the mistreatment of women in the tech workplace. Published in January 2016, the authors surveyed more than 200 women who have worked in Silicon Valley for at least 10 years about their experiences in tech culture.

Some telling points:

  • 47 percent of respondents said they were asked to do lower-level tasks such as note-taking or ordering food, which their male colleagues were not asked to do
  • 59 percent said they have not had the same opportunities as their male colleagues
  • 88 percent of women said clients or colleagues address questions to male peers that instead should be directed to them
  • 60 percent reported experiencing unwanted sexual advances

It's easy to point fingers at Silicon Valley, but issues of gender discrimination hit close to home in the health IT industry nationwide, and the largest industry gathering can bring these issues to light. A Craigslist ad posted Jan. 25 serves as one example. The ad seeks a "HIMSS '16 Conference Booth Girl," A picture is requested for consideration. The "girl" is expected to wear business casual attire for three days, earning $150 per day. No requirements or professional capabilities are specified other than being available for those 72 hours.

No vendor or exhibitor's name is attached to the ad.

A reporter for MedCityNews discussed the Craigslist ad in a post, and he should be applauded for drawing attention to this blatant display of sexism. But author Neil Versel suggests having women on exhibition floor may be a distraction to attendees — an interpretation that is sexist in itself. He writes, "I, like most men, enjoy looking at beautiful women. But this is happening in Las Vegas. There's plenty of eye candy to be found for everybody outside the convention center. We can do without it on the show floor."

Being in Las Vegas doesn't pardon sexist behavior, and calling individuals "eye candy" is disrespectful, especially when it's a person to whom one has no type of relationship. Even more unsettling is this unfolding in a professional setting.

HIMSS is the largest health IT-focused gathering in the United States each year. It's meant to be a meeting of minds, where more than 40,000 professionals, clinicians, executives and vendors gather to advance the industry. But when 40,000 people are gathered in one place, and that place is Sin City, professionalism is sometimes turned on and off.

Hospitals and health systems are investing millions of dollars in health IT vendors and solutions at HIMSS, but those serious decisions and required professionalism stand in stark contrast to these lewd undertones. This is all worsened by the fact that this overt sexism lies parallel to one of the least women-friendly industries.

Conversations like those spurred by the Elephant in the Valley report are highlighting these issues and fostering necessary conversations. There has been progress, but the rate of it is slow.

"Sexism often crossed the line right into sexual harassment 20 years ago, and no one thought anything of it," says Sherry Benton, PhD, chief science officer of Therapist Assisted Online, which provides online tools for patients to manage symptoms. "Fortunately, that situation is better than it used to be, although if it happens anywhere, anytime, it is not acceptable."

Dr. Benton has worked in healthcare for 25 years, and health IT specifically for four years. She says while the proportion of women in technology and engineering is rising, men disproportionately occupy administrative level positions.

The tech industry's boy's club can't persist as it has without consequence. The number of women in tech is faltering. In fact, women in STEM fields are 45 percent more likely to leave the industry than their male peers, according to 2014 research from the Center for Talent Innovation. A highly cited Harvard Business Review study from 2008 finds up to 50 percent of women in STEM will leave due to "hostile work environments."

Few are taking action against this dynamic, but those who are standing up are supporting innovation, professionalism and equality. At this year's HIMSS conference, there is a #HealthITChicks Meetup & Tweetup scheduled for March 1, where attendees — women and men — are invited to join Sue Schade, former CIO of Ann Arbor-based University of Michigan Hospitals and Health Centers; Jennifer Dennard, founder of #healthITchicks; Rebecca Freeman, RN, CNO of ONC; and Dana Sellers, CEO of Encore Health Resources for a Twitter chat and special Q&A with these women healthcare leaders.

Only with recognition of the gender problem and greater collaboration will the tech industry's sexism problem start to diminish, and the antiquated culture will catch up to modern levels of respect.

How will we know when we've gotten to an equal tech culture? Dr. Benton points to the restrooms at conferences.

"I…appreciate the lack of lines for the women's restroom," she says. "We will have visible progress when I have to wait in line."

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